Watching history being made

Watching history being made

Last night in the half-time of a televised rugby game I saw an interview by Japanese TV with Eddie Jones, recently retired coach of the Japan national rugby team. The Japanese team was the absolute standout entertainer of the recent world cup, beating South Africa in an incredibly tense and brilliantly played game of rugby, and becoming the first team in world cup history to fail to progress despite winning three games in the group phase. This team is half “foreign”, and the captain was a man called Michael Leitch, who came to Japan in high school and stayed to take them onto the world stage.

Eddie Jones was asked about Leitch in the interview, and after discussing his playing qualities (Leitch is a pretty good player), described some of his personal qualities: that he is humble, hard working, and able to unite the “foreign” and Japanese players in the Japan team through both his language skills and his attitude. Jones also stated that he thinks the Japanese national team will always be a mix of “foreigners” and Japanese nationals, and as a result the captain will always need to be someone who can unite disparate cultures, playing styles and attitudes to rugby.

It’s only sport but Eddie Jones here is saying a really important thing about the role of migrants in any society. Every society has its weaknesses – Japan’s size in rugby, the UK’s poor mathematics, Australia’s voracious need for foreign ideas – but usually people don’t recognize their own country’s shortcomings. Eddie Jones, a man with a connection to Japan but obviously not Japanese, can see a shortcoming and can state it, but in general we don’t see the problems in our own societies. In well-functioning societies migrants fill those gaps, make them work, and help a society to achieve great things in areas where it would be otherwise weak. Michael Leitch is a really good example of a migrant doing that in Japan, but from overseas the Japanese team is often seen as illegitimate because of this foreign component. In fact the Japanese team is standing out as a representative of how migrants can make every society better, as is Japanese Sumo (which has allowed foreigners to compete and has not had a Japanese grandmaster for something like 11 years). Rather than deserving scorn or belittlement for having “imported” big players, the Japanese rugby team is a sign of how the future of a better world will be.

As a foreigner in Japan I often notice the different things foreigners offer to Japan, and our unique role here. Obviously I get frustrated with things when I don’t understand them or I am just culturally unable to handle them, and I’m sure Japanese get frustrated with me for being different and wrong; but also I appreciate the new insight Japan gives me into how to live and behave, and I think just as much Japanese people appreciate being able to change their modes of behavior and interaction to deal with a direct and frank Australian style of working and communicating. I say to people new to Japan from overseas: there are 120 million Japanese, they don’t need another Japanese person doing it badly. Following Japanese manners and customs is obviously important, but Japan needs your newness and (from their perspective) uniqueness much more than they need you to become like them. Living in a foreign country that is completely different to my own, I have very quickly come to realize that integration is a myth, and multiculturalism is the only realistic way that foreigners can become part of another society. The Japanese rugby team is a really good example of how that acceptance of and engagement with foreign ideas can improve a culture, and a great example of how the proper acceptance of foreigners into society can lead to huge new achievements.

Of course for every success story of immigration there is no doubt a downside – the cross-national marriage that failed, the criminal, the person who just didn’t fit in and made everyone uncomfortable. It’s inevitable that a project as challenging as welcoming complete strangers into your home will go wrong. But society is very good at absorbing and cushioning failure – that’s why we have it – and all those failures are of no consequence compared to the successes. Japan’s rugby team is a really good example of how those successes can benefit a nation.

We live in a time when immigration and especially refugees have become a controversial and scary topic. As a foreigner living as a migrant in a country completely different to my own, this fear of foreigners has special salience – it is scary and dangerous to think that it might one day come here, to this place that has welcomed me. I also think it’s a thing of the past, a strange and anachronistic spasm of old racism that is doomed in this modern world. I hope the Japanese rugby team’s successes can hasten its death, and make their small contribution to building a better world, with cultural differences but no borders.

I’m fascinated with finding elements of culture that have resisted the force of culture, because I think that many societies retain a socio-cultural core that is resistant to mere events, and drives the society through massive cultural changes with its fundamental structure intact. I have tried applying this idea to east Asian history, and now I’m reading Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, and thinking I see some elements of British history that maybe show the same continuity. I’m quite happy to take Cornwell’s work as definitive historical content, because it’s a fun book. So what continuity do I find between modern British history and the ancient era?

The Essex Dog

In the Arthurian era depicted by Cornwell, the British are fighting the Saxons in Britain. The British occupy Wales, Wessex, and the West Country, while the Saxons have captured Kent, Essex, London and the Southeast. That is, the Saxons are the original Chavs, and the source of the cultural force that divides modern Britain[1]. Just like in modern Britain, on the weekend they teem westward and get into fights with the locals, who have to beat them off in scenes of violence that are just like those you might see in modern London: lines of men with spears locked fighting against chavs. Except in the ancient era, the chavs also had shields: in Arthur’s time soldiers fought in lines of shields locked close together and penetrated by shields, a tactic they picked up from the Romans, and success in battle depended on keeping your wall of shields locked together and disciplined, and beating your enemy on their mistakes.

So what did the Saxons bring to this battle to give them an edge? Huge, nasty dogs that they would unleash on the lines of British warriors, breaking the shield wall. Anyone who has lived in London for more than a week is familiar with the phenomenon of the chav with their nasty dog, a great big fucked up bulldog or some other nasty arse-faced wolf-fucker that they have beaten since childhood and can barely control when they walk it down the street (if they can be bothered putting it on a lead, the anti-social arseholes). These are the dogs whose shit you have to dance around whenever you walk anywhere in London, and woe betide the man or woman who asks the tracksuited “owner” to clean up after their nasty slobbering canine. Reading about a horde of saxons in stinking bear furs, pointing their massive dogs at the British lines and yelling “oi” is pretty much exactly like reading about a Sunday afternoon in Finsbury Park or Tottenham. That, my friends, is continuity in history.

King Arthur and the Scrum

The crucial part of your average Arthurian stoush is the shield wall. Bascially this involves a bunch of tanked-up blokes carrying shields and spears, pushing against each other and sweating and screaming and spitting while the men behind them push them forward and try to force them to break their opponents’ line. Reading this while also regularly watching Rugby World Cup matches I could only really conclude one thing: it’s exactly like a massive scrum, with spears. Every description Cornwell proffers for this battle tactic sounds like a huge scrum. Tonight, watching Ireland play rugby (against Italy) with a fire in their bellies, I found myself imagining the same men draped in wolf fur, carrying spears and shields, coming towards me in scrum-like formation with the intent of beating their way past me to get to my farm and my children, and it was a disturbing idea. Rugby (and all modern ball sports?) struck me then as a formalized version of an ancient and very nasty code … is this also continuity in history?

A Final Semi-Prediction

Like a good Briton, at this point I should stab a slave in the belly and read the splatterings of their blood as they die to get an augury for the coming battle. Alternatively, I could just say that after watching Italy today I have a premonition that Ireland could make the final and maybe, possibly, even win. Their performance against Italy was exemplary and although Italy are a second tier team, they aren’t pushovers, and Ireland have already beaten Australia … and that was not a one-off (I think they did the same thing earlier this year). Their path to the final will involve first Wales (a probable victory) and then England (in a world of off-pitch trouble) or France (who just fell to Tonga and seem to be suffering from severe internal tension). On the other side, NZ’s path to the final should be assured; first Argentina, then either South Africa or Australia. But NZ are famous chokers and a semi-final against SA is the perfect opportunity for them to call on their famous curse, which would set up a SA vs. Ireland final. If Ireland get that far they will have beaten Wales, who almost beat South Africa … so it’s entirely possible.

Of course as an Australian I am supporting the All Blacks, but after they choke I’ll be supporting the underdog (even though I like South African rugby and I really really like Brian Habana). So I think there’s a chance I’ll be cheering Ireland in the final. Who’s with me?!!



fn1: You might say I’m drawing a long bow here, but Saxons didn’t really use missile weapons, so as the Saxons would say, “fuck off!”

I am watching England being slowly ground into humiliation by an astounding Argentinian team On the second day of the biggest contest of the world’s most important sport. It’s a war of attrition out there but the Argentinians are proving once again that the future of sport lies in the southern hemisphere. Sadly I am neither in the south nor the east for the first two weeks of this titanic struggle: I am in scungy, embittered London for a (great!) course on mathematical modeling of disease[1]. This means I have to watch the games in the morning and will miss most, but I can at least enjoy this weekend’s.

I love watching rugby. It’s the perfect synthesis of physical contest, teamwork, bravery and skill, and it happens at a pace and intensity that other contact ball sports lack. I love also the special tactics that derive from the specialization of the players when they are forced to mix it up in a chaotic melee. It also lacks the posturing and false machismo of soccer, and the nationalism of rugby doesn’t come with the nasty violence or racism of that sport. It’s culturally a million miles away from the other British code… It’s the best side of sport.

In today’s other game in a remarkable upset, Japan stood up to France right up to the last 10 minutes, even looking like they might win at one point, until their fitness gave out and les bleus marched home. Fans all around the world were hoping for a miracle there, but it didn’t come. However, I have hopes that this time around they will be able to get some victories. In 2007 they got their first ever points in a cup; this time they can hope for victories.

And of course I am hoping for a NZ victory, but they are famous for choking at the last. Can they do it in their home country in 2011? And if they can’t should Australia annex them?

fn1: one of my fellow students is the Australian Nobel laureate Barry Marshall, who identified the cause of stomach ulcers[2]

Fn2: and thus proved that the future of science is also in the southern hemisphere

Can you rise to the challenge?

The most important sports tournament in the world starts in three weeks: The Rugby World Cup, which is being held in New Zealand, home to the best and the most under-achieving team in the world. Historically famous for choking at the crucial moment, this time around they’re serious. Very serious. So serious, in fact, that the Sydney Morning Herald reports that they’re going to invoke a nation-wide ritual of sexual abstinence, presumably hoping that they can funnel the sexual frustration of 2 million NZ men direct to the team. Do they need to kill a virgin to complete the ritual? Perhaps all that energy will be channeled through the haka.

Truly, rugby is the most infernal of games.

Rugby league is the one that’s like American Football played backwards, not the one with the awesome haka, i.e. not the one that’s actually engaging to watch. Rugby league is also a game that’s been plagued by image problems, and is suffering from onfield and off-field violence, both by players and coaches in the professional and amateur world. There are also significant problems in children’s league, involving bullying parents, high expectations, and the (huge) problem of fielding children of vastly differing sizes against each other.

The consequence of these problems, of course, is that children try the game and hate it, so drop out; and mothers – the prime determinants of what sport children are allowed to play – send their children to the (in my opinion) vastly superior sport of Aussie Rules Football (AFL), which has been growing where league is floundering. AFL has already introduced significant changes in particularly its childrens league, has spent years trying to mellow the off-field antics of its players, and is also targeting girls. Rugby Union, soccer and AFL all understand that the key to a good adult competition is having a large pool of children from which to select talent, even though most of that pool will be second rate and of no value. This isn’t a problem for soccer in, say, the UK or Europe, because (outside of France) there is no challenge to the supremacy of “the beautiful game.” Not so in Australia, where 4 football codes are engaged in a vicious war of attrition for fans.

Rugby League’s traditional response to this has been a resounding “fuck it!” They haven’t wanted to change the way the game is played at junior level because they have been following the worn out traditional idea that you can only damage the game by changing its image, or changing its training and development practices to suit children or (heaven forbid!) women. There has not historically been any recognition that the elite level of rugby is not attractive as a participation sport for 99% of people who play it, and that you can’t get people into this by just slapping them in the face with a rugby ball and saying “smash ’em!” You need to make the game appealing to a wide base of people, and from them draw your intense and elite players.

Recently the role-playing blogging world has had a few kerfuffles about women in the game, with a common idea put forward that changing the game to encourage women’s participation would a) weaken the game and b) not work anyway. I find proposition a) particularly frustrating, because it contains so many misogynist ideas about the effect of women joining in a male activity; and I find b) frustrating because it pre-supposes there is no way girls would want to participate in a hobby that doesn’t involve ponies and pretty clothes. I have previously written about this issue in kickboxing, which (in Australia at least) is booming amongst women through a few simple representational and practical changes, which in the end benefit beginning male players as well as women. I wrote there that I think kickboxing’s approach to attracting women to the hobby presents a good model for how you can change the means of participation in the sport without changing the sport itself; you can draw in a wider range of people willing to try the game, and from amongst them you can channel people into various types of participation. I don’t see why the same can’t happen with regards to women in gaming (and, by extension, actual minorities like e.g. migrants, gays, etc.)

In today’s Sydney Morning Herald Phil Gould – who by all accounts is not the most charming of representatives for the game – has a column on reforming Rugby League to encourage participation and prevent drop out. It turns out that the macho old ideas of “just grin and bear it” haven’t been working so well for retaining young players, because enjoying the game as it is played is not a sufficient condition for remaining engaged when, for example, the people you play against are bigger and rougher. He has solicited suggestions from parents and coaches and got huge feedback, and the common feedback has been to find ways to manage the violence inherent in different sizes of children playing against each other. i.e. parents and coaches all want to get rid of the idea that the only way you can play the game is being dropped into the game-as-it-is-played-now and expected to sink or swim. There is explicit recognition amongst participants of this sport that clinging to a single definition of the way of playing the game is destroying its acceptability. But you won’t find any of these people arguing that the game in its elite form should change.

The column is long but the final part, entitled “My Awakening” is particularly interesting because it shows an example of a group of children working this stuff out naturally for themselves. There’s also a real hint of “old school” style in the way the kids house-rule the game of rugby to suit their circumstances. These are the enthusiasts who know the game and want to get it to work; anyone who falls into that group is going to be fine. The problem is that the majority of people aren’t going to fall into rugby through that group, but through the professionally practiced juniors game Gould contrasts them with. This, he sees, is the problem – those kids are suffering for the game and will put it away, because they are being forced to bend to the game, rather than the other way around. I think this is true in our hobby as well, that the majority of people will enter the game through an accepted channel (a gaming shop, or through joining an established group that shares many of the inflexible ideas I saw in the blogs about women’s participation in gaming); or they will just pick up the game books themselves and find nothing that encourages them to join, nothing that appeals to their understanding of how a game should be played or what is necessary for fun to be had. Those people might in turn move on to the “elite” gaming that many of us nerdy bloggers are used to; but we won’t be able to pick up those potential recruits if they get turned off by their first experience of the game, by the nerdy equivalent of being put up against someone bigger and rougher than them who really, in reality, wants to be playing a different game.

There’s also a few comments at the end of the article about how professionalization has ruined the enjoyment of amateur participation. I wonder if anyone at WoTC is reading it? I doubt it…

And a final note: a lot of the people talking about women in RPGs seem to be American or British, and I get the impression that they have very different stereotypes of women than Australians have. When I raise the example of sports adapting to encourage women, they seem to not understand. I think this is because American and British women are much less sporty than Aussies or Japanese women, and thus male gamers from those countries are not familiar with the idea that by changing a few details of the representation of a sport you can get women into it in droves. It seems to  be a secret that only Antipodeans (and Japanese) understand. Maybe this is because the dominant games of those Northern hemisphere cultures are so obssessively macho, yet simultaneously insecure. Or something. But – as is usual in all matters of importance in this world – I think those Northern hemisphere cultures could stand to learn a lot from the Antipodes…

So, that festival of the boot is on again, and although since I moved to Europe my interest in soccer has waned considerably[1], I still watch the World Cup quite avidly. Of the 6 European soccer giants – Spain, Italy, Germany, England, France and Holland – only 4 made it to the round of 16, and in that round already another – England – has been knocked out in a match they lost 4-1 to a German team that beat Australia 4-0. This is the same England team that struggled to get through the group stage. The two finalists from 2006 went out in the group stage, and in such an ignominious fashion as hardly befits European minnows, let alone France or Italy. Italy was beaten comprehensively by Slovakia and only drew with tiny New Zealand after pulling a penalty with traditional Italian diving methods[2].

I noticed that the three European giants who have bombed so far all have quite old players. Italy and England particularly, but even France still has players like Thierry Henry. Holland has also been playing a little poorly – they really struggled against Japan – and they also have quite a few holdouts from previous cups. On the other hand, Germany has a very young team. This article in the Guardian makes the point that this is not a coincidence, and that the Germans have been putting a lot of work into developing local talent. It’s also the first German team to be representative of Germany’s multicultural modernity, with 5 or 6 players being of Arab/Turkish/Eastern European/latin American origin. I take this as a sign that the German FA has been searching far and wide for talent.

So what is with the old teams that bombed? I think that these three countries – the UK, France, Italy – have opened their football markets simultaneously[4] to easy foreign transfers and massive television marketing money in the last 20 years, and the consequence of this has been an easy-come-easy-go attitude by the clubs. Instead of doing the hard work of developing local talent, they’ve taken the low-risk approach of buying in talent from abroad. This makes FA Premier league games fun to watch, but it has had the dual effect of a) importing players from smaller countries and giving them exposure to world-class coaching and playing techniques and b) reducing the pool of talented local players. The consequence of this at the world cup is that these countries’ national teams not only have to select their line-up from a shallower pool of talent, and thus rely increasingly on has-beens like Rooney; but they also find themselves facing a wider pool of nations with quality players who have been groomed by these big football nations’ leagues. New Zealand, for example, has a line up whose entire transfer value was  a third that of one player on the Italian team (de Rossi, I think). They had one player from Blackburn in defense, another player from an English team in midfield, and another in offense, and they assembled around this spine a team that included several amateurs. In 1982 their team was entirely composed of amateurs. So while the available quality for NZ has increased considerably, England and Italy find themselves relying increasingly on old men, and in the washup of last night’s defeat the press are also claiming that the young players aren’t so great.

Make no mistake, this is good for football. Having an increasingly diverse pool of finals contenders, with 2 Asian teams through to the round of 16 (and one a favourite, I note, to go to the quarters!), an African team through to the quarters, and a selection of latin American teams, is good. But from the point of view of the football giants of Europe, something has gone wrong. Compare the British approach to football with the Australian or NZ approach to rugby. If a NZ player ever plays for a foreign club, they can never again play for NZ. So even though the foreign clubs pay vast sums more than the local clubs, NZ players wait until their world cup hopes are over before heading overseas – after their (shameful) 2008 World Cup loss, a whole stack of players who knew they wouldn’t be selected again headed to French and British clubs to earn the real money. As a result of this the All Blacks have players lined up 3 deep for most positions, and the lead players can’t guarantee selection in the next game if they don’t keep their act together – and this is the stated policy of the NZRB[5].

This should also be the case for the European soccer giants. There is no way that in a nation obsessed with football, as England is, a 30-something second-rate striker like Rooney should be able to even get in the squad, let alone onto the pitch. There should be a 28 year old and a couple of youngsters ahead of him – the same for Lampard, Cole, etc. Beckham stayed in long past his prime, and was a crap captain to boot. I think this is a result of market forces operating in England, and although one should rightly observe that although these market forces have had a good effect on the rest of the world game (and on the viewing public’s enjoyment of football), the British FA needs to think about some countervailing mechanisms to groom up a new generation of English players.

I suppose it could be argued that the Italian problem is not so much an effect of broadcast TV as the general corrupt and moribund nature of Italian institutions. But I think that Italy and France have similar broadcast models to the UK, and I wonder if the Northern European countries have (as is traditional up there) opted for a more genuinely social democratic approach to the game, that strikes a balance between the market model of “buy the best team you can” and the long-term good of the game. Because football is notable for its intense nationalism, I think that the long-term good of the game and national success are inextricably linked, as you can see from the excitement about soccer that is stirred up in rugby countries (like Australia) when we have international success. It strikes me as interesting that some of the European countries with the most intensely nationalistic fans – Italy and the UK – have managed to somehow water down their own national teams in a way that pours cold water on that nationalism. Transferring that national allegiance to clubs is not going to be  a good thing for social order at local soccer grounds, and the game isn’t going to maintain its populist appeal if it loses its nationalist appeal (not that it will ever be unpopular – soccer is a very very good game to play and to watch). But Associations like the FA have an important role to play in fostering local talent, otherwise why have them? And I’m sure there must be more than a few people in England and Italy and France this week thinking “why do we bother with an FA at all?” when their national teams perform so badly, their local leagues are essentially deregulated in every significant particular, and the FA doesn’t even properly monitor on-pitch referee or player behaviour.

The Italian captain made a comment last week to the effect that not beating NZ would be like the All Blacks failing to beat Italy in rugby. It’s noticeable that recently Italy have beaten England at Twickenham, and the IRB is moving to include Argentina in the Tri Nations. I wonder if this week a lot of Italian soccer fans are thinking of teaching themselves the rules of rugby, and diversifying their football interests? If Australians can do it[6], so can Italians.

fn1: Football culture in England (and probably much of Europe) is a horrible, macho and nationalist display of male tribal bonding that I just can’t get behind or support. From afar in Australia the Champions league was fun to watch, but in England it feels like you are participating in a form of ritualized abuse. The complete and total exclusion of women from all aspects of the sport, the hyper-macho posturing of the fans, their sudden exaggerated Englishness, it’s all horrible, as is the tense atmosphere the football areas, the armies of police, the dogs, the chanting aggressive dimwits wandering around in dangerous gangs, the implicit acceptance of this phenomenon as a side-effect of the game that has to be tolerated in order to enjoy its limited benefits. And, of course, there is the gender divide – with women thoroughly and completely uninterested and excluded. If you’re wondering why British women are so thoroughly unsporty, you don’t need to look any further than the crowd of a British football match, completely and utterly devoid of women. To people from outside Europe – or people from a rugby tradition inside Britain, for that matter – this all looks very strange.

fn2: Note as well that Italy had a particularly easy run, being drawn in a weak group and being given amazing referee favouritism – in their final game against Slovakia with 10 minutes to go their two strikers attacked the Slovakian keeper, kicking him and punching him, and the Slovakian keeper received a yellow card. The whole thing was caught on camera too – if it were Aussie Rules Football or Rugby those two men would have been sent packing immediately; and this came after another unprovoked attack in the first half. Italy should have finished that game with an 8 man team and a much less flattering scoreline[3].

fn3: In case you hadn’t noticed, I really hate the Italian national team. I have done ever since they beat Australia in the 2006 quarter finals with a shocking piece of diving. The sooner FIFA accepts the inevitable and introduces video refereeing and summary execution for diving, the better.

fn4: After that British player won a case in the European court, a case which ended up not benefiting him at all but completely changed the face of European football.

fn5: On a side note, I don’t much go in for the complaints of some in the British press that the English players are paid so much that they don’t care whether they win or lose internationally – I think they care very much, although I do think that injury-wise they probably assign their first loyalty to the club that pays them so much. But Southern hemisphere codes have a salary cap, which I think does have the consequence of reducing the prima donna element of player behaviour, and preventing the players form influencing the selectors as much. I also wonder if the greater respect rugby players show the referee compared to soccer has anything to do with their relative pay grades. At a rough guess, an Aussie football player is paid maybe 5 times as much as a referee, while an English star would be paid 50 times as much as a referee. Obviously institutional factors are the main driver of this, particularly the post-match judgements made in rugby which mean that you can’t just argue your way out of trouble on-pitch. But surely that pay grade differential makes a difference to on-pitch behaviour. As an example of down-to-earthness, when I did weights at the University of New South Wales I spotted bench press for a professsional rugby league player, who was doing rehabilitation weights during the summer break[7] in between contracts, before heading to Europe to play with a French team. I somehow doubt that your average premier league player ever has the misfortune of having to share training space with us mere mortals, let alone having a non-professional human being assist them with their weights.

fn6: Australia has 4 codes of football that we divide our attention between, and we’ve been world champions in three of them.

fn7: “rehabilitation weights” for a dislocated shoulder in this case meant doing 85-100kg bench press sets of 12, with clap push ups in between and 30 second rests; followed by dumbbell flies with 35 kg on each shoulder, and more clap push ups. The man himself probably weighed 100kg. That’s some rehabilitation!